Laws. Sausages. The World Cup.
All are things you don’t want to see getting made. But after E3 last week, we should add videogames to that list. In what should have been a celebratory coming-out party for Ubisoft’s new games, the French game publisher accidentally showed off a little too much of its factory, and paid a public price for it.
It started with the revelation that in both Assassins Creed: Unity and Far Cry 4, Ubisoft considered having playable female characters, and then decided against it. Just as a cover-up can be worse than a crime, the attempt to spin away from the initial controversy shoved the company even farther into the spotlight.
“It would have doubled the work on [animation and costumes]. And I mean it’s something the team really wanted, but we had to make a decision. … It’s unfortunate, but it’s a reality of game development.”
Ubisoft technical director James Therien explains the absence of playable female characters in Assassins Creed: Unity in an interview with VideoGamer.com.
Its initial explanation: Having playable female characters would have been too much work. Critics, including a former Ubisoft animator, called baloney. Okay, the company responded, just kidding – the real reason is that playable women would mess with the story, or something.
Whatever the reason, this discussion over representation in games has become all too predictable.
Ubisoft’s second explanation, that a playable woman character wouldn’t fit into Assassins Creed: Unity’s story — set during the French Revolution — is historically questionable. But it’s a tried-and-true excuse for the homogeneity of game protagonists.
Last year, Rockstar Games co-founder Dan Houser said the three playable characters in Grand Theft Auto V were all men because “The concept of being masculine was so key to this story.” And last week, the Internet was buzzing after the producer of Nintendo’s latest Zelda game hinted the protagonist might be female — a first for the main series.
He quickly changed course.
“… My intent in saying that was humor,” producer Eiji Aonuma told MMGN. “I don’t want people to get hung up on the way [male protagonist] Link looks because ultimately Link represents the player in the game.”
Gamer culture is supposedly improving, but it’s hard to believe that the companies that make the games are keeping up with the times if they won’t straightforwardly explain why their big-budget games are a nonstop sausage fest. If they actually want to be inclusive, en route everyone needs to be more honest.
Frankly, I’m worried about what this says about me as an avid gamer. By buying games favoring protagonists who look like me, I’m voting with my wallet that diversity doesn’t matter.
Consider Aonuma’s “joke” about Link being a girl: Why is it so laughable that I might be able to accept a character who doesn’t look like me?
Or, when I drive around the beautifully crafted world of Los Santos in Grand Theft Auto V, am I endorsing that “key” focus on masculinity? Am I automatically a registered supporter of the huge characterization gap between playable characters Michael, Franklin and Trevor, who get long back-stories and hours of dialogue, and non-playable characters like Michael’s wife and daughter, whose identities boil down to the word “slut”?
I don’t know the answer to these questions. I do know this: When companies attempt to avoid confronting these types of questions, it leaves me uncertain and unhappy. I’m tired of feeling like being a “gamer” means I’ve signed off on sexism.